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FRENCH HISTORY

After 60 years, France struggles to come to terms with its Algerian past

Friday marks 60 years since the end of the Algerian war of independence from France, but the ghosts of the brutal conflict still haunt both countries.

After 60 years, France struggles to come to terms with its Algerian past
French soldiers on the streets of Algiers in December 1960. (Photo: AFP)

France has made tentative attempts to heal the wounds but refuses to “apologise or repent” for its 132 years of often brutal colonial rule.

On the eve of the 60th anniversary of the Evian accords that ended the bloodshed signed on March 18th, 1962, France’s struggle with its legacy in Algeria continues.

Independence

Algeria, which Paris regarded as an integral part of France, became independent on July 5th, 1962, after a devastating eight-year war.

So bitter was the divide in France over Algeria that the decision to pull out led some top generals to attempt a coup.

French historians say half a million civilians and combatants, the vast majority Algerian, were killed in the war, while the Algerian authorities insist the actual figure is three times higher.

It took France nearly 40 years to officially acknowledge that “the events in North Africa” constituted a war.

Exodus

In the space of a few months of independence, one million pieds-noirs, settlers of European extraction, fled to France.

Ironically, they often ended up living alongside Algerian immigrants. Many would later become the backbone of the French far right.

Some Algerians who fought for the French, known as Harkis, were executed or tortured in Algeria, but their numbers are highly contested.

Another 60,000 ended up in squalid internment camps in France.

Presidents’ takes on France’s recent past

Valery Giscard d’Estaing was the first French president to visit independent Algeria in April 1975.

His successor Francois Mitterrand said “France and Algeria are capable of getting over the trauma of the past” during a visit in November 1981.

Nicolas Sarkozy admitted the “colonial system was profoundly unjust”.

François Hollande called it “brutal” and in 2016 became the first president to mark the end of the war – causing uproar among his opponents.

Emmanuel Macron, the first French president born after the war, infuriated the right by calling the colonisation of Algeria “a crime against humanity” during his election campaign in 2017.

He said it was time France “looked our past in the face”.

‘Symbolic gestures’

After he was elected president, Macron apologised to the widow of a young French supporter of Algerian independence, a communist who had been tortured to death by the French army in 1957.

Macron also admitted Algerian lawyer Ali Boumendjel was tortured and killed the same year, a murder French authorities had long denied.

After the January 2021 publication of a state-commissioned report on colonisation by Algerian-born French historian Benjamin Stora, Macron said “symbolic gestures” could help reconcile the two countries.

He also begged forgiveness from Harkis who had been “abandoned” by France.

History ‘rewritten’

But Macron has rejected calls for France to “apologise or repent” for its time in Algeria.

He sparked a major rift in late 2021 after he accused Algeria’s post-independence “political-military system… (of) totally rewriting” the country’s history.

Two weeks later he described the 1961 massacre of scores of Algerian protesters in Paris by French police as “an inexcusable crime”.

In January 2022 he also recognised two 1962 massacres of pieds-noirs who opposed Algerian independence by French forces, as well as the deaths of anti-war protesters killed by Paris police the same year.

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FRENCH HISTORY

French history myths: France only sent one Statue of Liberty to the US

You might already know that New York's Lady Liberty was a gift from France, but did you know she is far from the only Liberty figure, and not even the only one to have travelled from France to the United States?

French history myths: France only sent one Statue of Liberty to the US

Myth: The French have only sent the Americans one Statue of Liberty

It is likely common knowledge that the United States’ iconic 93-metre-tall Lady Liberty is actually French in origin, gifted to the USA to mark 100 years since American independence.

But you might not realise that the New York City monument is not the only one the French have gifted to the United States.

In 2021, another – this time smaller – Statue of Liberty travelled to New York from France.

This replica was also meant to be a symbol of French-American friendship. Having previously been on display in Paris with the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts, the statue travelled across the Atlantic to the United States in June of 2021. It eventually made its way from New York to Washington DC, where it went on display at the French ambassador’s residence for Bastille Day. It will remain there until 2031.

The conservatory told CNN that sending the statue to the United States was meant to “send a very simple message: Our friendship with the United States is very important, particularly at this moment. We have to conserve and defend our friendship.”

The original statue stands as the third tallest in the world, but she is not the only Lady Liberty in the world. The second-most famous Statue of Liberty was actually gifted to the French by Americans, specifically those living in Paris. Only a fourth of the height of the original, the Statue stands on the Île de Cygnes in the Seine river in Paris, facing westward toward the New York statue.

Several other replicas – at least 100 of them – exist across the world. There are several of them in France alone, and if you want to find them you can plan your Lady Liberty road trip by clicking HERE.

READ MORE: Where to find France’s 12 Statues of Liberty

The original Statue of Liberty also represents more than just the shared friendship between the United States and France.

French historian Édouard de Laboulaye came up with the idea for the statue and made the proposal for it in 1865. While the statue was intended to be a gift to strengthen the relationship between the two countries, Laboulaye was also an anti-slavery activist and avid supporter of the Union during the Civil War. He hoped that the statue would represent liberty and symbolise the freedom of thought repressed under Napoleon III’s regime. 

Eventually, it was sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi who brought the statue to life (reputedly modelled her face on his mother) helped by a famous engineer known for another and tall structure – Gustave Eiffel.

The statue was intended to mark 100 years since the American declaration of independence in 1776, but initially only the torch-bearing arm was displayed, the full statute was not finally completed for another 10 years and was dedicated in 1886.

This article is part of our August series on myths and misconceptions from French history.

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